A Teacher's Dilemma: Help Students Or Harm Colleague

Teachers face dilemmas daily in their classroom and school. Figuring out what to do and how to do it when personal and professional values clash is often the nub of a dilemma. Unlike a problem that has a solution (e.g., house is cold, turn up the thermostat), teacher dilemmas are messy because of conflicting values, feelings and relationships–especially in a school. Nonetheless, they have to be managed. But sometimes they cannot.

Here is a dilemma that appeared in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine. Kwame Anthony Appiah who responded to the teacher’s query teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.”

I work in a Title I high school — a public school serving a largely low-income community — that has about 2,000 students. I teach in a smallish program with high-needs kids. By needs, I mean any and all needs you might imagine. Our school has a single social worker, who is obviously stretched thin and has a complicated personal life. I often refer students to this social worker for anything from pregnancy to friend drama. I seldom hear back unless I hound this person with follow-up emails or in-person visits. This person has difficulty keeping one student straight from another and is often unavailable and often responds with “news” or information that I already know (or have even provided). The social worker makes grand, sweeping gestures (like painting affirmative slogans in the student restrooms) but is, in my opinion, ineffective and even negligent on an individual scale.

A degree of classroom social work is inherent in any teacher’s job, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I often fall asleep at night worrying about this or that student or multiple students, and this year, several of my students have dropped out — all of whom I previously referred to the social worker.

There are many administrators and counselors and a nurse on our campus, all of whom should see what I see. We teachers seem to be in agreement when this issue comes up in conversation, but is it really our place to point out to an administrator what he or she should observe so plainly? I mean, it’s not as if the person who, say, stocks office supplies isn’t doing his or her job. Students’ well-being (and teachers’ by extension) is at stake.

I did speak to this social worker face to face once and was asked, “What do you want me to do differently?” I was honest. Nothing has changed, and the situation is devolving daily. I think the social worker needs some support, too, and I’m not without compassion for this person, but what about all these students? Name Withheld

One social worker with 2,000 students in a high-poverty district? That’s a lot of counseling, case management and assessment for one person to do. Whether this social worker is incompetent or simply overwhelmed (or both, in some measure), the school authorities ideally should do something: get a better social worker or get this one more help. As a teacher of high-needs pupils, you’re more likely than most teachers to see what happens when social-work support fails. The administration should take you seriously, then, if you say that your students aren’t getting the assistance they need. And the administration should be even more inclined to help if a group of teachers expressed that worry.

You seem to think, though, that administrators, counselors and the nurse on campus should know there’s a problem. Let’s suppose that they’re genuinely, if culpably, oblivious. In that case, you should approach them with a group of your colleagues and tell them what you’ve observed. It may be that they do know the score, though, but aren’t doing anything about it. Is this merely out of institutional inertia? Then I would consider drawing the problem (anonymously, if you fear being penalized) to the attention of someone in the educational establishment outside the school — including the parent committee, if there’s an active one.

But perhaps the administration thinks it can’t do anything much about the problem: getting another social worker on staff may not be an option. The needs of the students are, rightly, your paramount concern. Because you’re a caring teacher, you’re already doing whatever you can to help, and you’re frustrated at your inability to enlist help from this social worker. You’re focusing, understandably, on the shortcomings of an individual. Yet the broader failures here, I suspect, go far beyond staffing choices. They most likely have to do with the limited resources available to the school, despite Title I funding, and the ways in which low-income families have been let down by support systems outside the school.

Maybe this social worker isn’t terribly good at the job. Maybe this isn’t a job that any person, however skilled, could do terribly well. Keep doing what you can to make things better, and keep trying to encourage others to pitch in. But systemic problems ultimately require systemic solutions.

I do wonder how viewers of this blog respond to this advice from Appiah. Comments appreciated.


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3 responses to “A Teacher's Dilemma: Help Students Or Harm Colleague

  1. “But perhaps the administration thinks it can’t do anything much about the problem: getting another social worker on staff may not be an option. ”

    This was my first thought as well.

    However, I disagreed with his advice. As a public-school teacher, you either drive yourself crazy at the other people who aren’t doing their jobs, or aren’t doing their jobs as well as you’d like (a distinction without a difference to many teachers), or you find workarounds. I also think the teacher is not considering the possibility that a social worker might not be a solution to his kids’ problems. Maybe they were going to drop out anyway.

    I have never referred a student to a social worker. In my school, the administrators or counselors are the first line of defense. If I were worried about a student, I’d go to a counselor first. This teacher mentions counselors, so he’s got that option. Instead, he’s routing the students directly to the social worker, then staying up nights worrying about them.

    In all honesty, I don’t think teachers survive long if they take this attitude. It sounds heroic,but worrying about our students’ outside lives and needs is not really our problem. You fix what you can. You fix what is in your locus of control.

  2. Meant to say that this reminded me of your contrast between a problem and a dilemma.

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